My Job As An Artist Is To Think Outside The Box…So I Re-Imagined Housing.

By Craig Pleasants. Edited by Julia Dopp

As an artist living on the Lower East Side of New York years ago, I stumbled upon a close college friend I had not seen in many years. Since I’d last seen him, he had become a pastor and was running a mission church a few blocks from my apartment. We got together for dinner, discovered that we had children the same age and became fast friends again. Soon after that, I began volunteering at his Wednesday evening soup kitchen on East Seventh Street. There I came into regular contact with people who were homeless — living on the streets, living as squatters, or living in tents in Tompkins Square Park. At first I was intimidated and uncomfortable, but in a few weeks I began getting to know some of these folks as gentle, caring people that had simply gotten a bad break somewhere along the way. This challenged me to think more deeply about the causes of homelessness, and it inspired a new area of investigation for my artwork. For several years my art practice grappled with issues surrounding homelessness and for several more years after that it sought to raise questions about the way our society creates housing.

Should people really have to indenture themselves to a financial institution for 20 or 30 years in order to have a place to live? After all, we housed ourselves for thousands of years without doing so, often creating unique and beautiful structures with knowledge gained and passed down over many generations. I spent years admiring and studying the work of these vernacular builders who use the materials close at hand to create shelter. I took inspiration from them as I began to explore alternative ideas about shelter and housing through sculpture, sometimes posing questions, sometimes offering out-of-the-box ideas intended to jar viewers loose from conventional thinking. I created structures from woven cattails; bales of hay covered with adobe; found felt; 50 red shirts from a thrift store; and 500 discarded shoeboxes, each project investigating the relationship of inside to outside, each postulating an alternative relationship to housing.

Another question was, Who says we can’t build something ourselves that we can live in? In response to this question, my wife and I set about building a house from materials that we sourced inexpensively from lumber mills, hardware stores, and the failed projects of other people. Doing the math, we realized that with the exact same materials, an octagon enclosed 20% more floor space than a square — so we built an octagonal structure that we lived in for three years. We found it felt cozy and surprisingly spacious. Although it was less than 400 square feet, the shape and high ceiling made it feel much larger. People loved it. People wanted their own, but building an octagon by hand using traditional building methods had been difficult, and I wasn’t going to do it again. Then one day I met an architect who introduced me to a new method of building that could pre-cut all those pesky angles and window and door openings, which made our little octagonal living unit far simpler to construct.

This development led me to a new question: Why can’t I reduce the cost of shelter by creating a multiple of a house the same way a sculptor creates a multiple of a bronze? With that architect’s help, I took the pattern for my house and engineered it as a kit house that would be simple enough for DIYers like myself. The result is an object that draws on years of studying vernacular builders and creating architecturally scaled sculpture, and leverages the efficiency of a high-tech building method. As an artist, I sometimes feel as if I am alone in my studio, disengaged from the world, while issues I care deeply about go unexplored. I created Sculptorhouse LLC as a way to bridge the disciplines of sculpture and architecture and to run head on at the issues of affordable housing and sustainability. The Octagonal Living Unit 3.0 is a 450 square-foot kit house that sells for $35,000 and can be heated and cooled for about $150 a year in a climate that spans zero degrees to 100 degrees fahrenheit. There are many applications for this little octagon, from accessory dwelling unit, to a guest house, even replacement housing after a disaster. I am eager to explore the possibilities and I am happy to be part of the COMMON community where ideas like this come to flourish. Please feel free to reach out.

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